Robin McAlpine – We need a collective response to climate disaster, not punitive individualism

As one European government after the other – most recently Germany – is foiled in its neo-liberal climate policies, the simple solution of the state leading the way based on social policy is anathema.

Robin McAlpine is founder of the Scottish think-and-do tank Common Weal

Cross-posted from Robin’s website

Patrick Harvie threatens to punish those who don’t change their own heating systems to a green alternative. This individualist solution to climate change is going to fail us all.

I’ve never been convinced Patrick Harvie is left wing. In everything I’ve seen his politics seem driven instead by a kind of radical libertarianism aligned to a kind of ‘consumer state’ model of public service. Nothing much in his time as a Minister has changed my view on that. The one thing Harvie never seems to argue for is collectivism.

Nor, despite the right-wing rhetoric, is ‘green’ and ‘left’ synonymous. These are specific and different strands of political thinking, with overlap but also with clear separation. I have worked extensively in both fields, and neither is without criticism. The left tends to believe that climate change is for after social justice is achieved, the greens tend to believe that social justice is fine as long as poor people don’t start consuming more.

The Green movement has always had this punitive fringe around it. It carries this unspoken sense that saving the planet is fine, but that we have sinned through our pollution and so must be punished for it, even if transition-without-punishment is possible.

It’s also hard not to note that some of the origins of environmentalism were in one of various ‘opt out’ movements, people who decided that they wanted to exit mainstream society and live with less, harmoniously with nature. It means that environmentalism has always had an element of anti-modernity in it.

So when I am asked to look at proposed climate solutions I’m of course interested in the likelihood that they will work or not and on the social impact they will have. But I’m also generally on the look-out for their ideological or philosophical basis, because that may not be in the slightest consistent. Individualist market systems like Carbon Trading, puritan approaches of ‘ban and reduce’ and collective approaches like ‘Green New Deal’ are all coming from quite different ideological places.

This is on my mind because of Patrick Harvie’s comments at the weekend about the need to get people to stop heating their houses with petrochemicals – because apparently we can’t ‘insulate our way out of climate change’. But Harvie’s approach won’t work.

First, let me quickly explain my points of agreement with him. Absolutely, insulating houses isn’t enough. It is, however, absolutely essential. Common Weal’s rough analysis is that about 40 per cent of our total domestic heat load in Scotland is lost in heat waste from houses not insulated to an acceptable standard. That’s not passive house standard, just our estimate of what is reasonably achievable in the real world.

It means that it is makes no more sense to say ‘right, let’s change that to be green waste heat with air source heat pumps’ than it does to say ‘stick in some loft insulate and crack on as was’. It is also the case that reducing our reliance on ‘dirty heat’ in our homes is crucial given that it is the fourth biggest source of emissions.

The point is that both of these things can be true and yet it doesn’t mean that any possible action in these areas is a good idea. The problem with this is scale; there is simply too much that needs to be done to do it all with a ‘nudge’ model where you gently incentivise or disincentivise actions.

And there’s not a lot of incentivisation going on in Harvie world. Basically he wants people to change their gas boilers all by themselves and he is going to punish them if they don’t. What he’s not doing is providing the kind of support to make that feasible nation-wide, or the kind of coordination necessary to make it work nation-wide.

To illustrate this a bit, let me pick up only two points here for now. The first is affordability. I have a low income so basically we can’t do anything fancy, but a set of circumstances came together which enabled us to install solar thermal heating in the house. We wanted to add biomass as well but it was way too expensive to do in one go.

In fact let’s just say that the limited heating installation we did cost well over the average total savings of a UK household. An air source heat pump would have cost us more (more on that below). This is painfully expensive stuff to do. If your only tool for getting people to do it is a stick, you need to do a lot of beating.

Or put another way, there are a lot of fines and disincentives between here and £15k before people are going to go for the £15k option – and everyone knows it. So they’re taking a run at ‘you can’t sell your house unless you do’. But frankly lots of people still won’t be able to afford an install, certainly not with house prices rising as they are.

Bullying people into doing the right thing if the right thing is outside their envelope of affordability is just bullying. And in any case, ‘neoliberal’ doesn’t begin to touch the sides of this approach. This is the full privatisation of climate change mitigation. The state is going to do nothing much apart from punish you.

This is ruinously wasteful. In a policy paper written but not yet published, Common Weal estimates that as much as 30 per cent inefficiency is built in to asking every house to solve their own problems at totally different times. You as an individual simply can’t gain anything like the efficiency of scale of a government.

So this isn’t going to work. Punishing people into doing things they can’t afford to do doesn’t make that thing affordable. The public support available just isn’t anywhere near the levels that would tip the balance for anyone who isn’t already deeply committed.

Then, if you look down south you’ll see a ‘culture war’ backlash against climate change measures is now turning both main parties further and further away from meaningful climate action. Harvie thinks his punishment is necessary, but also unavoidable – as in people will not be able to avoid doing what he wants, happy or not.

He’s wrong. There are always other options, such as turning on governments which do this to people. This is where it comes back to the problem with some of the strands of green thinking – the firm belief that the need to take people with us is superseded by the seriousness of the crisis. Some environmentalists globally have even floated the possibility that climate change means we need to suspend democracy.

None of this is going to work. History is filled with people who thought they could impose their will against the wider will and who found out they were wrong – France doesn’t have a ten-day week and ‘New Coke’ doesn’t exist. The problem is that this isn’t just a matter of routine politics; if we get this wrong once, there may not be time to recover.

We need collectivist solutions to this problem, not punitive individualist ones. The only way I believe that fighting climate change is a realistic possibility is if we work at serious scale in a coordinated way. The rest is just unrealistic, the appearance of doing things rather than a plan to get them done.

And no, Scotland doesn’t have the fiscal powers to do what it needs to do, but it does have the policy powers, and it does have the resources to create a compelling plan. We’re being force-fed air source heat pumps because those are the only individualist solutions to the heating problem we have. But they last about 15 year and cost £15k each time – just wait until people find out they will be paying £1k a year on capital before heating costs, for the rest of their lives.

A collectivist approach might not have been able to fund everything that needs done, but at least we could have lined up everything that needs done so that it was ready to fund. We’ve not even had a proper debate about the serious drawbacks of air source heat pumps yet.

But in any case, there is one measure which leads me to believe that this really is just Patrick Harvie grandstanding to distract from the very poor performance of Greens in government. And that is that big brave Patrick has told the public they’re going to have to swallow their medicine – but are only now starting to address the housing developers. They’ve not yet been asked to up their building standards to a level which means the houses being built now won’t need retrofitted again within a decade or so, although the Passive House Bill proposed as a backbench resolution is at least now government policy.

A left approach would challenge the vested interests and protect the individual via a process of collectivism. What we are getting is protecting the vested interests and punishing the individual through a process of pretending this is fair and can work. It is neither. We are being let down.

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